Iraqi president gives priority to job opportunities for youth, calls corruption 'political economy of conflict'

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Iraqi President Barham Salih, in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, says that in the present climate "talking about another war is just madness."

Iraqi President Barham Salih is considering convening a meeting of Iraq’s neighbors, beginning with a focus on a “common regional interest” in Iraq’s stability and economic prosperity.

“We do want to have a conversation in Baghdad starting with a focus on what is a major point of agreement, Iraq’s stability and prospects for prosperity and economic regeneration, which is a common regional interest,” Salih said in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. “We hope this will be an important confidence-building measure, and it could be an opportunity, a catalyst for a wider regional arrangement.”

Salih, who became president in October 2018, stressed the urgency of the crisis of unemployment, both in Iraq and throughout the region.

“We also should share an abiding interest in creating job opportunities for our legions of unemployed youth,” said Salih. “This matter cannot go on like this.”

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“Iraq today is 38 million people,” he continued. “Almost 70% is below the age of 30, and quite a significant part of this population is young, unable to find meaningful jobs. … We have 307,000 graduates in Iraq that are unemployed. To me, this is a priority. So to be diverted from the real mission of regenerating our economies and providing job opportunities for our young, for reforming our education sector, our health sector, and being diverted away by talking about another war is just madness.”

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Salih stressed the challenge of corruption, which he labeled the “political economy of conflict.“

“There needs to be an international coalition to deal with the issue of corruption and terrorism financing,” he said. “It is truly as important as the military campaign.”

Commenting on his recent meetings with the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, Salih said, “The ambience of the relationship between Erbil and Baghdad is quite good.”

“I personally am of the opinion that we need to end this yearly cycle of negotiations and renegotiations about budget ramifications, and we need to come to a strategic understanding about renegotiating for all Iraqis, including the Kurdistan region,” he said. “There is some impetus for that sort of resolution. I don't want to be too optimistic because of the impediments along the way, but this will be good for Kurdistan and good for the rest of Iraq, for Basra and Samarra and Mosul, and we really need to move on and move beyond the impasses of the past.”

“With the present constellation of leaders, both in Baghdad and [the] KRG, we may have a good opportunity to seize it and make it,” he said.

Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi will soon introduce a draft law to the parliament that will stipulate that 5% of Iraqi government revenues will be devoted to major reconstruction projects.

"This is important to regenerating the economy within Iraq,” he said, but also for the region.

“Iraq's geopolitics, which has been a tough issue for Iraq, in a way was condemned to the geopolitics, but if we turn it around and look at them now, it could be a bridge for the transit of goods, people and services across the Middle East. That is what we hope to achieve through reconstruction commission. That is a priority for us.”

The interview was conducted by Al-Monitor President Andrew Parasiliti. A lightly edited transcript of the full interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  In your speech to the General Assembly, you said that terrorism and corruption are two faces of the same coin. Talk a little about that.

Salih:  Corruption is the political economy of conflict. It sustains conflict. It causes social instability and discontent which are incubators for extremism. In many ways terrorism cannot be sustained without funding and financing. So, as important as the military response to terror is the task of drying up terrorist financing, which often comes from illicit trade, from corruption within the political systems, corruption within the security systems, and essentially sustains, deepens the cycle of terror, instability — it becomes a self-sustaining cycle feeding upon itself. This cycle needs to be broken.

Corrupt elites need instability, need crisis, thrive on crisis, and in one shape or form, they need the terrorist threat to justify their rule and stealing more money. So this is one way of looking at it.

And I said in my speech to the UNGA, while the world confronted ISIS terrorism through setting up an international military coalition, there needs to be an international coalition to deal with the issue of corruption and terrorism financing. It is truly as important as the military campaign.

Al-Monitor:  You met with US President Donald Trump. How was the meeting, and what is your top priority now in relations with the United States?

Salih:  It was, I believe, a good meeting, a cordial meeting, but also frank. As President Trump mentioned, US-Iraq bilateral relations are important but complicated — complicated by the realities of conflict and war, and also by the dynamics of the region. Nevertheless, Iraq is emphatic about developing its relations with the United States. This is an important bilateral relationship — an important partnership. The meeting was an opportunity to emphasize that and also to present to President Trump our priorities in Iraq for economic regeneration and also affirming that Iraq's sovereignty, Iraq's stability is not caught in the regional crosscurrents sweeping across our neighborhood. And we had a good conversation.

Al-Monitor:  You said at the UN, "We expect our neighbors and the international community not to make Iraq pay for their own disagreements and conflicts," but tensions between the US and Iran play out in Iraq. The Iranian ambassador to Iraq said today that if the US attacked Iraq, Iran would attack US targets in Iraq. How are you managing those relations with Washington and Tehran?

Salih:  It's tough, difficult, and we live in the heart of the Middle East. We are undeniably affected by these dynamics. To start with we must all work to avert war — and must work to defuse the rising tensions. We do not need another war in the Middle East. I've not seen the statement attributed to the Iranian ambassador. If this were to be true, it will be unacceptable, inappropriate and is surely contrary to stated Iranian policy of respecting Iraq’s sovereignty and our common interests. The US and other coalition forces present in Iraq are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government and its mission is specifically, exclusively defined to helping Iraqi security forces in the war against terror.

Iran is an important neighbor of ours and we are adamant to developing our bilateral relations based on shared interests and respecting sovereignty. We in Iraq do not want to see another war. We do not want harm to come to any of our neighbors, including to Iran. Iran is, again, an important neighbor for Iraq, has helped us in the war against terror, and its stability and its interests matter to us. We have been adamant that our territory will not be used to harm any of our neighbors. This is also constitutional obligation for Iraq. We expect our neighbors also to look at Iraqi interests and Iraqi stability and Iraqi sovereignty in the same way.

Al-Monitor:  Did you discuss the Popular Mobilization Units [PMU], and was there any reference to the recent missile attacks which landed near the US Embassy?

Salih:  In a conversation with President Trump, we had wide-ranging conversation. Let me not go into details and specifics, but it was a good conversation, cordial and candid.

Al-Monitor:  On Sept. 21, Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi dismissed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis as deputy head of the PMU. Has that become an issue in your relationship with Iran?

Salih:  This is not about dismissing Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. It is about restructuring the Iraqi PMU, the Hashid al-Shaabi. This is following from the decision of the prime minister, the commander in chief, a decree by which it brings Hashid al-Shaabi units under the command of the state in accordance with the law that was passed in parliament a couple of years ago and is part of the reorganization and integration of the security services. This is a sovereign Iraqi decision, this is a matter for the commander in chief, for our government.

Al-Monitor:  Tell me about your meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Did he express concerns about Iraq's relationship with the United States?

Salih:  No he did not. We as always had a thorough conversation, focused on regional dynamics and our bilateral relation which both sides are keen to enhance and develop fully for the benefit of both people.

Al-Monitor:  Did he mention his new Regional Security Initiative, which he brought up in his UN speech, and is that something Iraq would consider supporting?

Salih:  We need to say we will be looking at a range of ideas and proposals that are coming through the region. As stated before, we are at the moment also thinking of convening in Baghdad a meeting of the neighbors of Iraq.

Interestingly, the neighbors of Iraq, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, almost all are identical in stating their support for Iraq's stability, for supporting Iraq to accomplish the mission of eradicating the threat of ISIS terrorism, and to helping us preserve, sustain the hard-won stability that we have in Iraq. Our neighbors, each from a different vantage point, are stating their interest in that. We do want to have a conversation in Baghdad starting with a focus on what is a major point of agreement, Iraq’s stability and prospects for prosperity and economic regeneration, which is a common regional interest. We hope this will be an important confidence-building measure, and it could be an opportunity, a catalyst for a wider regional arrangement.

Basically, what we have had over the past, at least four decades, Iraq was the domain in which the regional actors have fought their way through, to the detriment of Iraq but also to the detriment of the region and the wider world.

There is an opportunity to turn these dynamics around. … Can we really make Iraq the hub? Can we make Iraq the bridge? Can we make Iraq a common interest for the neighbors and really move beyond the state of regional politics that we have been accustomed to in the Middle East? It will be a challenge, a tough challenge, but also a historic opportunity.

I have been saying and continue to say the Middle East remains probably the last broken region in the world. Europe went through the same. Latin America, East Asia, many other regions of the world, these major problems of those regions were fixed through creating interdependencies, economic integration. I do say Iran and Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait, Syria in some ways, we all share an abiding interest of combatting these terrorist groups and making sure they cannot wreak havoc with our societies.

We also should share an abiding interest in creating job opportunities for our legions of unemployed youths. This matter cannot go on like this. It simply cannot go on like this. Look at that in statistics — Iraq today is 38 million people. Almost 70% is below the age of 30, and quite a significant part of this population is young, unable to find meaningful jobs.

We have 307,000 graduates in Iraq that are unemployed. To me, this is a priority. So to be diverted from the real mission of regenerating our economies and providing job opportunities for our young, for reforming our education sector, our health sector, and being diverted away talking about another war is just madness. The Middle East does not need another war, especially as the last war is yet to be definitively over.

Al-Monitor:  You were recently in Erbil, and you met with Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, President Nechirvan Barzani and Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. What progress was made on the outstanding issues in Baghdad-Erbil relations — oil revenue, budget, discrete territories? And what more needs to be done?

Salih:  I think the ambience of the relationship between Erbil and Baghdad is quite good. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the prime minister, and many of the present political leadership of Iraq have good appreciation and understanding of the dynamics of Kurdistan. Everything I heard from officials in Erbil was a commitment to implementing the Iraqi Constitution, but obviously, there are differing interpretations.

I personally am of the opinion that we need to end this yearly cycle of negotiations and renegotiations about budget ramifications, and we need to come to a strategic understanding about renegotiating for all Iraqis, including the Kurdistan region. There is some impetus for that sort of resolution. I don't want to be too optimistic because of the impediments along the way, but this will be good for Kurdistan and good for the rest of Iraq, for Basra and Samarra and Mosul, and we really need to move on and move beyond the impasses of the past.

With the present constellation of leaders, both in Baghdad and the KRG, we may have a good opportunity to seize it and make it.

Al-Monitor:  That's all I had, unless you want to add anything else.

Salih:  Would you like me to talk about the reconstruction commission?

Al-Monitor:  Yes, please.

Salih:  The prime minister and I will be cosponsoring a draft legislation to parliament to set a reconstruction commission. This is, in some ways, reminiscent of the 1950s monarchy when Iraq was devoting part of its oil revenues to major infrastructure work.

Iraq needs major investment in infrastructure. According to this draft law that will be submitted to parliament soon, 5% of the Iraqi revenues will be devoted to this fund, focused on major reconstruction work like highways and railway networks, port facilities, airports, industrial zones, major housing projects, with the idea of providing a truly streamlined process that bypasses the impediment of the present-day bureaucracy of the Iraqi government, and enable foreign direct investment, private sector investment in profitable projects that could be developing the infrastructure needed, provide the job opportunities for the Iraqi youth. This is important to regenerating the economy within Iraq, but also potentially this could also mean the transregional projects to bring about economic integration.

Iraq's geopolitics, which has been a tough issue for Iraq, in a way was condemned to the geopolitics, but if we turn it around and look at them now, it could be a bridge for the transit of goods, people and services across the Middle East. That is what we hope to achieve through a reconstruction commission. That is a priority for us.”

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Found in: UNGA 2019

Al-Monitor Staff

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